[Book] Lee O-young (I): Of linguistic bugs and pitfalls in perspective

ジャンケン文明論Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present) is a renowned critic of East Asian cultures from South Korea, and though he is best known in the West for his study of Japanese culture entitled Smaller is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature (1984)*, I think his magnum opus is actually an untranslated work named Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors”. It is a compact collection of his penetrating observations and insights into East Asian cultures and their contrasting differences with the West. This series of posts is intended to be an introduction to some of his ideas.

A language is like a software programme that is installed in the human brain. When you use that language to think, the programme executes certain commands that lead to certain inevitable results – that is to say, the language you speak predisposes you to think in a certain way. Moreover, the language programme also comes with bugs.

An accomplished linguist, Lee O-young has spotted many linguistic bugs that pull the wool over our eyes as to the true nature of reality –

For example, ticket counters at train stations in Japan are called 切符売り場, “a place for selling tickets”. The noun originates from the train company’s perspective rather than the customers’ perspective. Even the customers themselves in Japan are used to seeing things from the train company’s perspective rather than their own. If you want to buy a train ticket, the native way of asking for directions is not “where can I buy a ticket?” [どこで切符を買えますか] but “where do they sell tickets?” [どこで切符を売っていますか].

Another example is schools. The word in modern Japanese for “classroom” is 教室, or “a room for teaching”. The word for “textbook” is 教科書 or “a book for teaching a subject”. Both of these nouns originate from the perspective of the teacher, the educational establishment, and ultimately the government. A classroom is where “teaching” rather than “learning” occurs.

This attitude to education has not always been the case. The word for “school” is 学校 – which literally means “a school for learning”; the origin of this word can be traced back to the Chinese philosopher Mencius (372 – 289 BC). Similar words for “school” in the pre-modern era also stressed the perspective of the student: 学堂 means “a hall for learning” and 学院 means “a temple for learning”. It was considered that the institute existed for the benefit of the students rather than the teachers. However, if you look up the definition for 学校 or “school” in a modern Japanese dictionary today, you are likely to see something to the effect of “a place where teachers teach students”.

Lee also observes that whereas East Asian languages tend to name things from a certain person’s perspective (whether it be the teacher’s or the student’s), the subject and object of an action sometimes tend to disappear altogether in the nouns of European languages. For example, consider the word “textbook” in English – neither the teacher nor the student comes into the picture. It is neither a book for learning nor a book for teaching. It is as though the textbook exists all by itself in an existential vacuum.

This disassociation of the noun from the perspective of the observer, says Lee, shares a fundamental similarity with the modern scientific attitude whereby things are broken down and studied independently of their relations with each other. It is no accident that the human mind and the human body have come to be regarded as a dichotomy.

(To be continued.)

* It has also been published under the title The Compact Culture: The Japanese Tradition of “Smaller Is Better” (1992)


[Book] Lee O-young (I): Of linguistic bugs and pitfalls in perspective


2 thoughts on “[Book] Lee O-young (I): Of linguistic bugs and pitfalls in perspective

  1. This is incredible! I’m a huge fan of linguistics so this is a treat. Does the author trace when that shift from prioritizing the receiver to prioritizing the actor came to be? My best guess is that slowly happened with the westernisation of Japan after the Meiji era where social hierarchies and centralisation of government took place.

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